Friday, March 24, 2017

Snake in the grass, alas

Lest you think it’s all benign in the tropics, all garish birds dazzling flowers mystical fruits, and beans, let me disabuse you. One day we went with Minor (gardener and very helpful person) to the top of the Aquiares waterfall, (yes, that famous waterfall, the cover-waterfall of the 2007 Tropical Cataracts Illustrated pin-up Issue).
Famous waterfall or not, I started thinking about that scene in The Mission, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Stepping carefully, clutching tree trunks and vines so as not to slip on the path down from the coffee trees to the shimmering pool at the top of the cataract, all I could think about was Robert de Niro, the atoning slaver hidalgo, struggling up the face of a Paraguayan cataract, weighed down by his fancy Spanish armor.
The history of this, and every other continent, is replete with stories of men and woman doing brave things and crazy things, which I never would or could do. But I think about them constantly: the waterfalls I will neither scale nor plunge down, the alligators I will not wrestle, the poison arrows I will not dodge, the deserts I will not cross, the mountains I will not ascend…Why do I think so constantly about the physical challenges I shirk? Years of therapy and there is still no definitive answer. But I know that standing on a rock overlooking the Aquiares waterfall and leaning over to gaze on the plummeting cataract, I imagined my alternative self: hopping into a hand-hewn kayak, approaching the rim, catching some air and then dashing to the pool and rocks below.
So when young man emerged from the foliage behind us with a snake wrapped around his arm, I started imagining that I was not undone.
No es venenoso,” Minor said. “And besides, it’s a baby.”
CSB asked me what kind of snake it was. I said I didn’t know, but that Minor said it wasn’t poisonous.
The young man had the snake wrapped around his arm; he very graciously he asked me if I wanted to hold it.
Minor also thought that holding the snake was an excellent idea. He told me that my nephew, Christian, had been down here a few weeks ago and very much hoped to see a snake but had not been so lucky. I assured him I would send a picture of the snake to Christian, with some sort of gloating commentary.
I asked Minor what this snake was called, and he told me the local name was acorro. This meant nothing to me, but perhaps I misheard. He said that this type of snake captured its prey and then squeezed. He used the Spanish verb exprimer, meaning squeeze, which I didn’t immediately understand.
Later, I sent a photo of the snake to my nephew and also to son-in-law, a philosophy professor who was an amateur herpetologist as a child.
My son-in-law wrote back, “Cool!  That's a red tailed boa.  I had two of them as pets!”
While the boa may – technically - not be poisonous, their bite can be painful to humans. Also, they hiss when annoyed. And of course, they constrict their prey. They squeeze until blood flow to the heart and brain is cut off. After that, they eat the prey and then spend several days digesting.

Monday, March 20, 2017

One of the best things about visiting Aquiares, a coffee finca on the slopes of the Volcan Turrialba in Costa Rica - after the verdant beauty of the rainforest, after the profligate tropical flowers, after the symphony of tropical birds, and after the food (pie of frijoles and plantains, mangos, papayas, and guanábanas) - is the bookshelf full of actual, real, good books. (Guanábana photo by the estimable Roger Bruce.)

For many years, my parents made an annual odyssey to Aquiares with a group of friends, old Smithies, local friends, faraway friends; the actual, real, good books on the shelves were brought down by those friends and left there for others to read.
Honestly, the good ones were all brought down by Dorothy Monroe, a dear friend of my mother who was possibly the best-read person I have ever known or will know. When Dorothy gave you a book, it came with a note that pithily introduced you to the novel you were about to relish; when she thanked you for a book, you received a handwritten review, full of specific details and observations. Here are the frontispieces from just a few of the books contributed by Dorothy over the years.

Just because we find ourselves in tropical paradise does not mean, however, that there is any less awareness of looming dementia.
Dorothy of the fine inscriptions, Dorothy of the NYRB Classics, is now in a Memory Care facility in Massachusetts. Her days are spent in confusion and anxiety; above her bed is the life size portrait of her as a young ballerina that hung above the mantle in their beautiful 19th century house. Her friend, my mother, is next door to me, struggling with jigsaw puzzles and clipping articles from the paper, articles she can neither read nor comprehend. She looks at picture books.

There is nothing I can do about the the invasive incursions of Alzheimer’s into the brains of these two lovely ladies, my mother and Dorothy; all I can do is read W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants or J.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, and be grateful for the choices they once made.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Bosch was the last thing we did in Vienna.

It was the last thing we did in Vienna, after mass at Stephansdom and one last café of significance. The mass was conducted in the local language, leaving me ample uninterrupted time to consider two major questions: exactly how many statues are there in that one cathedral? (Well over one hundred, but an exact count would require binoculars and moving around.) And how to keep my nose warm? Stick it into a bowl of nuked raw rice, which is how I warm up my fingers? Or create a knitted nose hat, not unlike the beaky nose-cones filled with sweet herbs worn by doctors during the Black Plague? Not unlike something that might be worn in a Boschian version of hell? Having solved neither question we headed to the Café Sperl. In 1988 and again in 1999 it was rated the best coffeehouse in Vienna, whatever that means, but I still preferred our Café Grienstadl. The plan was to walk back from Café Sperl to our Airbnb on Langskongasse and then take an Über to the airport, getting us there ridiculously early for our flight back to Frankfurt, but we were still traumatized from having missed our flight to Vienna five days earlier, necessitating an eight-hour train ride. A perfectly fine train, but still.
And still, we had not seen Vienna’s Bosch. Had we not seen Klimts and Schieles beyond count, and Bruegels, Arcimboldos, Rubens, Titians and a Vermeer? When is enough art too much art?
Not yet.
I realized I couldn't bear to leave Vienna without gazing on the Last Judgment. We ran around the corner to the Gemäldegalerie. We paid our fee and and ran through the galleries to the one and only Last Judgment. And there it was: the turbaned man with no torso and a lizard’s tail; the dragon leering at the naked Eve; red devils cooking and being cooked; the pierced egg with two legs; heads with feet and only feet; blue creatures playing flutes. It was all there, and so much more. Nobody could imagine the creepiness of Hell quite like Bosch.

Bosch was the last thing we did in Vienna.
Of course we got to the airport too early. We could have spent much more time contemplating the tortures that await us in the afterlife. We could have spent time in the gift shop where they sold ingenious figurines of assorted Bosch creepy creatures. (I already have one, and I know that Reine covets it.) At the airport there was time to finish the final pink pussyhat for Anna in Berlin. And eat Mozart chocolates filled with praline. We even made the plane.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Getting to know Sissi

Before going to Vienna last week with Bine, I had never heard of Sissi. Nor had I felt the lack of Sissi in my life. Before Vienna, I knew about the irascible Thomas Bernhard, and the sad exiles Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, about Freud’s couch, about Schiele and all his extraordinary, bony hands, about Bosch’s cracked eggs, webbed feet, fallen angels and impaled sinners, about Wiener Werkstätte.
Nothing about Sissi or any Hapsburgs at all.
Now I know that Sissi - real name: Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Queen consort of Croatia and Bohemia - was very beautiful and, to understate the case, obsessed with her beauty. Little girls growing up in Austria and Hungary watched the Sissi trilogy with Romy Schneider, and dreamt. Now, while admittedly I still don’t know much about Sissi, I know who she is and that she matters very much indeed. I have checked on Netflix for any of the many Sissi movies and mini-series, to cheat on my research, but sadly none are available on Netflix. My computer’s spelling program does not recognize Sissi, or its alternate spelling, Sisi.

I discovered Sissi via her sarcophagus. I had no idea about the Hapsburg predilection for fabulous monuments to their dead. Inside the Kapuzinkrypt, or Church of the Capuchins, I came to know a few Hapsburg tombs. As Bine predicted, Sissi’s had fresh flowers. So what that she died over 125 years ago. Bine told me how Sissi was born in Bavaria to a duke obsessed with circuses and his princess wife. Her childhood was, by noble standards, relatively rustic and unstructured. Sissi liked to catch frogs, ride horses and make daisy chains. Then she married Emperor Franz Joseph and even worse, acquired the formal and controlling Archduchess Sophie as a mother-in-law. Sissi often escaped the humorless rigidity of the Vienna court by heading to Hungary and parts beyond. And throughout, the maintenance of her beauty, her wasp waist and cascading hair, became her life’s work. Her beauty regimens are too painful to even describe. Poor Sissi was assassinated, almost by accident. The Italian anarchist was planning to assassinate the Duc d’Orleans that day, but when the duke changed his plans, the flexible anarchist went after the next noble to present herself, Sissi. There, on the promenade in Geneva, he stabbed Sissi with a sharpened file. Initially, her tightly laced corset staunched the blood flow, but she died just the same.

After making her acquaintance, after letting Sissi into my life, there was nothing to do but repair to the PalmHaus café (the second café in what would be a 5 café day) and drink pink wine in the sunshine.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

On Being Sick

Last night was my last night quarantined upstairs in Reine’s old room. I’ve been sick and banished, along with my germs. Not exactly banished. Not remotely banished, though pleasantly remote. It was more like taking a little vacation at home: just moving upstairs and excusing myself from real life.
Tonight I will move back in with my beloved on the assumption that I will not infect him with my copious germs. I am of course delighted to rejoining the marital bed, but still….

It was such a haven up there, gravely quiet but for the occasional hiss and clank of the radiator. Up there I can fall asleep midday, and then wake in the middle of the night, turn on the light, and read The Nix for hours. Or The Guermantes Way. Or both. I can watch a Mexican miniseries about Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, a 17th century scholar who had to become a nun on order to get the peace and quiet to study, read and write. Not surprisingly, in one of her greatest poems, “The Dream”, she writes of “the darkest hour of the night, shadow marking midpoint to the dawn…”

The rooms upstairs are the oldest in the house, unchanged since 1790 with their casement windows and bubbly glass, their sloped ceilings, their wide painted floor planks and fire places. The moldings are uneven and handmade, and the cracks in the wall, if they do not have the habit of looking like a rabbit, make me smile by resembling the Nile. These cracked walls have presided over scenes of love and lust, hysterical weeping, astronomical discoveries*, and clogged sinuses.
Because nothing is new under the sun, and certainly not in Reine’s room, every object tells a story. On the wall (cracked, of course) to my left, is a print of poor benighted Othello along with Iago as a corpulent burger, taken from Simplicissimus. Bine, my almost oldest friend, whose father was my grandfather’s friend and textile colleague, Bine, who taught me everything I know about European art and Euro-chic, gave it to me more than forty years ago. On the occasion of my first marriage. What did she know?

On the likewise cracked wall in front of me is the needlework “A Paris tous les 2” that I recently rescued from the Orchard armoire filled with linens and laces that Mom had no idea what to do with. None of us did, or do. This piece I assume was made by either my father’s mother, Germaine or his cousin, Madeleine in a distant French youth, but we will never know. It is not quite embroidery and not quite a collage. It portrays a red and black carriage being pulled by a brown horse with a white mane; the coachman wears a yellow shirt, a great cap and his legs are wrapped in a red and black checked blanket. The carriage appears to be empty, or perhaps the two who are heading to Paris are engaged in vigorous copulation in the aft portion of the carriage, and unseen through the window. I washed it in Woolite and ironed it and then dismantled yet another old frame, and framed it. Now I love it.
It replaces the poster from a Sandy Skoglund exhibit at the Smith College Museum featuring naked people walking upon eggshells among snakes emerging from toilet bowls. I am fond of that too, but one of the grandchildren found it disturbing, and so it has been deaccessioned. Others, not the disturbed grandchild, have focused on all those eggshells. Not the obvious metaphor made literal, much as I enjoy that, but the literal eggshells: Are they hard-boiled for strength? Are they uncooked? Are they blown and empties of their yolk and white? And if they were all blown out, hundreds of them, by whom? My cheeks get tired after blowing out two or three eggs at Easter-time. Lately I have heard there are devices that will blow out an egg for you, but I have never actually seen or used one.

Straight ahead is the desk cum bookcase that was made by Italian craftsmen in Egypt for Bonne Maman and Bon Papa. According to Mom, several of the pieces in her Little Red House were made in Cairo by Italian craftsmen, the very finest. This may well be true. In the mid 1950’s all that furniture traveled across the ocean in a huge wooden furniture crate that would be turned into our playhouse, and the scene of sunny afternoon re-enactments of family weirdness and power plays.
The desk cum bookcase would end up in Bonne Maman’s ‘sewing room’ in her house on South Pleasant Street. One entire shelf would be filled with the eleven volumes of Journeys Through Bookland. Between the red leather covers of Volume IV, I first read “The Dog of Flanders” and blubbered uncontrollably. In other volumes I read Robert Louis Stephenson, Aesop’s fables, and countless lesser lights of children’s literature. Now on the shelves are multiple translations of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. One can never tire of the Metamorphosis. Change, hubris, retribution and redemption never get old.
Flanking the desk cum bookcase are two rocking chairs. The left flanking rocker is from CSB’s house in Bedford, a lovely Empire style mahogany rocker upholstered in striped silk. The Branch’s - someone among the Branch’s - had great taste in fabric. They still do.
I did not ‘know’ that the rocker in question was Empire in style. In the past, by which I mean pre-Alzheimer’s, I could simply have called on my mother and described the chair and she would have said: Empire style, and then given me a brief disquisition on Empire, how it related to Napoleon and how he had used bees as his imperial symbol because he believed it connected him to the ancient kings of France, because a stash of gold bees was discovered in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric. But my mother no longer knows a Windsor chair from a Chippendale and so I have to resort to The Field Guide to American Antique Furniture. The stuff about Napoleon I already knew, though I may have made up the Childeric details.

The right flanking rocker is for a child; it was assembled and stenciled by Granny for her first grandchild. Like the red painted toy chest that Granny painted and stenciled for Reine 38 years ago. First grandchildren tend to be spoiled and given gifts they are far too young to appreciate, by their eager grandparents. I write from experience in three subsequent generations. My attic is full of examples.

On the marble mantel (Tuckahoe quarry, acquired in bulk for the whole house in 1849) is a photograph of Bonne Maman, at the site of excavations in the Valley of the Kings, clutching in each arm a large 4000-year-old terracotta vase. So I was always told, and I still believe it. Though certain questions creep in, such as: wasn’t it a bit nerve-wracking to carry something quite so old and quite so precious? Whose idea was it anyway? Why is she standing so close to a deep pit? One of the stories from my grandparents’ days in Egypt was about the director of the Cairo museum who carried a flame for my grandmother. That part made perfect sense. Anyone in his right mind would adore my grandmother. The story is that when the museum was reorganizing their collections, he wanted to give Bonne Maman a genuine eleventh dynasty mummy of child. Hence not so very large and cumbersome. She refused, graciously, having no interest in owning the dead embalmed body of a child, no matter how old or ornate. It need not be said that I regret her refusal.
Also on the mantel are two white porcelain figurines from China that CSB inherited from his mother, who spent her childhood in Shanghai. They represent laughing old men with long beards, and each one is missing a hand. I have always wondered why, and bemoaned, that in the dispersal of family treasures from China, poor CSB ended up with the amputated statues.

Back in our own room, I will miss Morgan, the sad and worn out stuffed basset hound who was the dog of our youth. He spent the last 40 years exiled to the third floor at the Orchard, and when the time came, I could not allow him to be exiled to the dumpster. So here he is in Reine’s room, which is really just an extra guest room since Reine’s real life is in the wilds of Brooklyn. I have deferred, delegated, ceded ultimate responsibility for Morgan. Someone else will have to commit Morgan to the dumpster, at some later date.

Then there is the Nyquil. When I have a bad cold, something involving the mellifluous ENT triad, something involving the less mellifluous mucus, I have to, I must, I am allowed to take Nyquil in order to sleep through the night. And sleep I do. But before sleeping I am overtaken by Lethe and her warm embrace, and before I am released by sleep I have dreams that, if they are not soothing, are compelling. Although yesterday I dreamed again that Bonne Maman was alive and we were on the deck of a large ship and she was telling me the names of the islands in the distance, in different languages, Arabic and Flemish, then also Coptic and Heliopolish and Dalatian. The more languages she told me, the more we laughed. Then a handsome man came to tell us very sad news about a broken propeller, but it took us a while to control our breathing enough to stop laughing.

Good night Nyquil. Good night Empire rocker. Good night stenciled toy chest. Goodnight Paris in a pony cart. Goodnight box of tissues. Good night poor sad Othello. Goodnight casement windows. Good night handless laughing Chinamen. Good night Bonne Maman clutching ancient funerary urns. Goodnight clanking radiator. Goodnight Sor Juana Inez. Goodnight lonely nights.

*Seriously. See The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Yesterday when I went next door to see Mom, she was lying down on her heating pad and looking at The Other Wise Man. She told me she was reading it, and asked where it came from. She showed me the inscription to "Christine and Jeffrey" and asked me who they were. I told her I was Christine, and Jeff was my late husband. I told her I had brought the book over for her, and she could read it all she wanted. Then I went into e next room to gather up all the random solicitations that had arrived this week.
Back in her bedroom she informed me that she was reading a certain book, and brandished The Other Wise Man. She asked me where it came from and showed me the inscription. I told her what it meant. I reminded her that when Dad was alive we used to read The Other Wise Man aloud on Christmas Eve.
“Who?” she asked.
“Dad,” I said. “I mean, Philip. Your husband. My father.”
She said, “Of course I know my husband.”

In the living room I discussed some logistics with Shedley. Mom followed, carrying the book, and told me she had been reading it, and showed me the cover and the inscription. “Do you know who these people are?” she said. I told her I was one of them. Not for the first time I wondered why -in order to make these interminable exchanges more interesting - I don’t invent other answers, or as Kellyanne Conway would say, “Alternative Facts.”

Christine and Jeffrey could be friends who were lost in the Amazonian jungle and bequeathed their library to me. I had to build new shelves just to accommodate their vast collection of Henry van Dyke.
Or, I could have found the book at a used book sale in Ogallala, Nebraska, where my car had broken down and I ended up spending three delightful days awaiting its repair and going to garage sales, yard sales and used book sales.
Or, I could have no idea of the book’s contents.
Or, The inscriptees could be my neighbors, from whom I had borrowed the book several years ago. My failure to return the book in a timely fashion had permanently damaged our former neighborly friendship.
Jeffrey could still be alive. He could still be my husband. The tall, kind man who takes my mother to church every Sunday could be an interloper.

Yesterday I stuck to the facts as I knew them. When Mom asked me where I had spent the morning I told her, “At a meeting about Alzheimer’s.”
“That’s nice,” she said. “What is Alzheimer’s?”
“It’s an illness,” I said. “That attacks the brain.”
“Why would you do that?” She asked. Shedley gave me one of her funny looks that I interpreted to mean: How are you going to handle this one, smarty-pants?
“Your mother had Alzheimer’s, and now you do, and I want to learn as much as I can about it.”
“There was nothing wrong with my mother,” Mom said. “What did you say I have?”
“I’ve never heard of it,” she said. “What does it do?”
“It attacks your brain. It’s why you can’t remember things.”
Shedley rolled her eyes at me. Just how much of a jerk was I?
“I brought you some nice chocolates from Maine,” I said. “Your favorite daughter sent them.”
“Who is that?”
“Brigitte!” Years ago, Mom used to get amusingly agitated whenever I referred to one of her children as a favorite, generally someone who was not in the room. She always responded indignantly that she had no favorites, loved us all equally, blah blah blah. I miss the Pavlovian certainly of that response.

Later, when I related to him the highlights of my day, CSB, the tall, kind man who takes my mother to church every Sunday, did not think much of my referring to Alzheimer’s at all with my mother. “Do you really have to tell her the truth about your day?” he said. Could he have been recommending “Alternative Facts”?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Weather Update

Just in from the Hastings on Hudson Weather Alert email Advisory:


Meanwhile, out between us and Broadway, the animatronic ungulates are frolicking.